Dan hated it when I called him a hoarder, but he had this thing about keeping EVERYTHING. (Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you a story about a box of rocks, enough baseball mitts to field a team, and every letter his mom and grandma ever sent him). As I was downsizing, lots of stuff went in the trash. Lots of stuff got donated. Lots of stuff had to be shredded (FYI the shred company will come to your house for a fee saving you a trip). Everything left over went in an estate sale. But it’s really hard to filter through a lifetime of someone else’s treasures. How do you get past the gut instinct to keep every little thing as if he was going to come back and be mad at you for getting rid of it? How do you honor their memory and treasured items without living in a museum of the dearly departed? Seriously, I’m asking because I want to know. Despite all the work to downsize, I have boxes and boxes of his stuff in the garage of my new fresh start house.
One of my W friends shared what she did. All of her husband’s clothes got piled in the guest room. She kept the things she wanted, then had their son pick out what he wanted. After that, his friends were invited to come by and pick out what they wanted. Whatever was left over was donated to a local charity. Genius! I immediately did the same thing. I was sometimes surprised by what Dan’s friends wanted to keep as mementos, but glad I let them choose what was meaningful to them. Everything else got donated without a shred of guilt. And in case you were wondering, watching crusty old Veterans crying as they picked through their dead buddy’s stuff was hard so I mostly hid out in the other room while they were looking.
Since we’d started a memorial scholarship in his honor, anything with monetary value that wasn’t a family heirloom was sold to fund the award. Guilt free. And thanks to Evel Knievel dolls action figures, his coin collection, Star Wars trading cards, his World War II Paratrooper rifle and a bunch of other junk stuff that will soon be sold, some kid is going to get to go to college. Who needs a museum with a legacy like that?
Tune in next week for what’s up with the ginormous funeral photos?
Shortly after Dan died, Julie showed up at my door. She sat with me and assured me that, while I wouldn’t believe her now, things would get better. Julie was one of the few people who could get away with saying that without it being a useless platitude. She was a few months ahead of me in losing both husband and father. She alone had the street cred to tell me to hang in there and promise that I’d want to live again.
And she was right. I didn’t believe her. I was drowning in grief and couldn’t comprehend anything different. I nodded, thanked her for coming, and prayed that someday I’d have it as pulled together as she did.
And she was right. It was long and painful but it did get better.
Today marks eight months since that horrible morning. 243 days on this grief journey. 5832 hours of recovery. And it is better. There are more good days than train wrecks. I find myself dreaming about the future again. Things I’d lost…my smile, laughter and hope have resurfaced.
So now it’s my turn to share. To all the new W’s out there, it does get better. I promise.
I know your employee handbook probably has a sentence or two about bereavement leave, and that’s where this subject ends. Hey, don’t feel bad. We live in a grief phobic society, so why would the workplace be any different? As I get ready to celebrate 11 years with THE BEST FREAKING COMPANY ON THE PLANET, I thought I’d share some tips for other employers on how to help their employees who are grieving a loss. Here are a few things you may want to consider:
Grief affects you both mentally and physically. Brain fog and a short attention span are pretty normal. So are increased irritation and anger to things that previously wouldn’t have phased them. Your employee is back at work because they want or have to be, and are doing their best. If you have concerns about their performance please talk to them. Be gentle, but don’t beat around the bush.
Your three-five days of bereavement/funeral leave is woefully inadequate, but appreciated. Grief isn’t something you check off on a calendar. Please be aware that it can take months or years for some of us to be back to full capacity. If you offer a longer unpaid leave option and feel your employee might benefit from it, please offer it to them if you can handle them being out. Weigh the options…potentially losing them for good vs. a short leave of absence. If you can be creative with work schedule or roles that may be another way to protect the investment you’ve made in a great team member. The most appreciated words my boss ever said to me were the day before I was scheduled to come back to work. She told me that if I came in and it was too much, to just turn around and leave and not worry about saying anything to anyone. She may not remember it, but the memory of that care and consideration is carefully stored in my heart the way I used to keep my Snoopy watch and other treasures in my jewelry box when I was nine.
If you offer an Employee Assistance Program that covers counseling, remind them of that resource too. (Depending on your state, you may want to run that by HR first. Some companies don’t like to cross that line into human decency due to fear of litigation).
Please understand that social anxiety (grief’s annoying evil step-sister) can make being around people hard, especially upon first returning to work when you’re more likely to get The Look**. Your employee may walk out of a room in the middle of something. You may find them crying in a bathroom stall or in their cars or at their desk. Crying is healthy. They aren’t doing it to get attention. It will pass. I promise.
Some people bury their grief and want to act like everything’s normal. That’s okay too. You can’t force people to talk about it if they don’t want to. For some, work is an escape from the reality that sets in as soon as they get home to an empty/emptier house. Please give them that reprieve if that is what they want.
Grief isn’t restricted to the death of a loved one. Divorce and other losses can be equally profound, and aren’t covered by bereavement policies.
If you truly value your employee, please do what you can to reasonably accommodate their grief. I’ll tell you, that makes for one hell of a loyal employee.
The Wandering Widow
**The Look: the look of pity or sadness one often receives after a tragic loss or terminal diagnosis, usually dispensed freely by those who don’t know they are wearing it; sometimes accompanied by sound effects and uncomfortable personal bubble violations by huggers; to be avoided at all costs.
According to the great and all knowing Wikipedia, Grief counseling is a form of psychotherapy that aims to help people cope with grief and mourning following the death of loved ones, or with major life changes that trigger feelings of grief (e.g., divorce, or job loss).
There is a lot of info on the web from the counseling perspective, but not as much from the viewpoint of the recipient. All I can do is share my own experiences and hope that it offers insight to those of you who may be considering it.
First, I had to be open to it. I was going through the fires of hell and needed a guide to help me get out with as minimal damage as possible before I was burned alive. Everyone and their uncle telling you to get counseling isn’t helpful unless you want it. You also need to find a counselor who is a good fit for you. I was fortunate to have two great counselors help me through the process, but not everyone has that kind of luck. If you are serious about counseling, keep trying until you find the right one.
Since hospice fees include grief counseling (FYI not all hospice companies actually provide it even though they are supposed to) I started with the hospice chaplain, Jay. He was wonderful and had that soothing kind of voice you expect to hear on nighttime radio. He described hospice counseling to me as companion counseling. He’d walk this path with me but I would set the pace. He’d survived his own devastating loss and had a personal point of reference that was comforting. He came to the house once a week to visit with me. Week after week he’d sit on the couch across the room and just be there in a way no one else could. He’d ask me questions about Dan. What were my favorite memories? How did we meet? What was Dan like? After Dan’s gruesome passing, Jay was trying to help me remember that there were many positive memories. He also let me cry. A lot. A lot a lot. Every time I sobbed that I was broken, he assured me I was normal. All through Dan’s battle with cancer I kept hearing how strong I was (not true, by the way). I was on autopilot from the minute we heard the word cancer, even through the loss of my Dad a month after Dan’s diagnosis. Surrendering to the pain was not easy, and so much worse multiplied by two major losses. Jay helped me see that allowing the grief to happen was the true meaning of being strong. He also set the expectation that it was going to suck. Apparently super organized control freaks have a harder time with grief because we can’t control it. Go figure.
When I realized this was going to be a lengthy process I started working with Kelli. It didn’t feel right to keep utilizing hospice resources indefinitely, although Jay still checks in with me periodically. Fortunately, insurance covers this type of counseling, so all I had to do was call my primary doctor to get a referral. Kelli is very similar in her approach although takes a more active role in our sessions. She lets me talk. She asks questions to help me get where I need to be and helps me come to my own realizations of what I need to move forward. She’ll even stop me when I start going down the guilt path. And, much like Jay, she is my cheerleader. Our sessions feel more like having coffee with a girlfriend than anything clinical. Oh, and sometimes there is still crying, just not as much as before.
I don’t think I’d be functioning without either of them. Repressing grief is unhealthy, and almost always rears its ugly head within a year in one form or another. I made the commitment to myself that I would let the grief happen. “You have to feel the feelings” is what I was told up front. I wasn’t quite as prepared for how sucky those feelings can be but I’m glad I chose to take this journey.
What if you try counseling and just aren’t feeling it? I’ve talked to a number of W’s who just didn’t find counseling a fit for them…either the process or their counselor. Everyone is different. I’ve found it immensely valuable.
If insurance is the issue, check to see if your employer offers an EAP which usually covers 5 sessions at a time.
If you’re religious, seek out your clergy. Many have at least a small amount of counseling training.
Try a support group…either in person or online (I’m a member of the online The W Club since leaving my house to go to a meeting doesn’t work for me).
Talk to a friend about what you’re feeling. Just be mindful that not everyone can handle our pain the way a counselor can.
And if you just didn’t click with your counselor, try another one.
Whatever you choose to do, please “feel the feelings” and give yourself permission to work through the process. Be kind to yourself. And remember, you aren’t alone.
Oh, and for those of you trying to help your W…you may gently suggest counseling, but no nagging allowed.
Well there is just no good card for that. No one has figured out the right way to say, “Hey, I’m sorry the love of your life died and left you alone forever, but here’s a card to say I’m sending the very best. Happy V Day!”
So how do you reach out to the W in your life on this day where we are bombarded by messages of love and romance? First, not everyone celebrates this day…the hubs and I didn’t, and neither did many of our friends. But lots of people do, and this first red heart day can be yet another painful reminder of the void in our lives. Even though we didn’t celebrate it, the constant stream of jewelry-chocolate-wine-dinner-romance commercials and Facebook couple surveys and public “Kissy Face I Love You’s” is enough to push me into the grumpies.
So how can you help your W on this potentially awkward day? That’s easy. Just like it has been from day one, let her know you’re thinking about her. Be there if you can. There are no excuses for geography–FaceTime or Tango are almost as good as being there in person, minus the hugs, wine and Oreos. If she wants to talk about Valentine’s past, listen. If you’re hosting Galentines please invite her. Don’t take it personally if she says no. And if she wants to be sad, let her. This is just another stop on the path through grief.
The day you realize you’re the third wheel is always fun for a W. It’s probably somewhere between the funeral (when acquantainces and lesser friends disappear) and the time you are ready to start dating again, that even your close straight male friends can’t get away fast enough.
It took me awhile to figure it out and when I did I was disappointed. Didn’t you promise Dan to keep an eye out for me? And I was hurt because I thought we were better friends than that. And then I laughed because it’s funny in a WTF kinda way. Since one of my favorite pastimes is to discover the why in how the universe works, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about it. And since spending hours pondering is more fun with sharing, here are the results of my scientific research that mostly includes talking to other W’s over wine and sessions with my grief counselor who affirms this is a real thing.
Single male friends disappear because they don’t want to be seen as “that guy” who may be preying on the lonely widow. They don’t want to dishonor the memory of their dead buddy. And they may be worried the lonely widow wants more than just a friend–something beyond the occasional home repair project, wink wink. For the record, that’s a negatory ghost rider.
Coupled male friends disappear because the widow has now disrupted the balance of power in the relationship world. We can no longer be friends because we were couple friends, and since one of us has rudely made it awkward by losing her spouse, the non-widowed female in the relationship unconsciously (or consciously) views us as a threat. So long dinners and double dates. Now it’s just random text messages “checking in” with lame promises of getting together soon that we both know will never happen.
I know this doesn’t hold true for everyone. I have retained a few couple friends that are secure enough in their relationships to keep me in their lives. I know other W’s that have had the exact opposite experience. But since it’s a pretty common phenomenon, if it does happen to you my Dear W, just know you aren’t alone.